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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Polish president vetoes controversial judicial reforms

Surprise move follows local and European condemnation of government's attempt to control courts

Poland's president Andrzej Duda announces his decision to veto proposed judicial reforms at the presidential palace in Warsaw on July 24, 2017. Kacper Pempel / Reuters
Poland's president Andrzej Duda announces his decision to veto proposed judicial reforms at the presidential palace in Warsaw on July 24, 2017. Kacper Pempel / Reuters

Poland’s president has unexpectedly vetoed proposals that would have put courts under direct government control and sparked one of the country’s biggest political crises since the fall of communism in 1989.

After days of nationwide street protests, president Andrzej Duda said that he had looked “deep inside my soul” and found that giving the government sweeping powers to decide judicial appointments was not in the national interest.

The proposals threatening the independence of the judiciary had set Poland on a collision course with the European Union and was part of a wider government programme to increase control over the media, civil service and the military.

The European Commission last Wednesday gave Poland a week so shelve the judicial reforms, although its powers to sanction the country were limited. The European Council president Donald Tusk, a former prime minister of Poland, warned of a “black scenario that could ultimately lead to the marginalisation” of Poland in Europe.

Instead, the upper house at the weekend approved a bill that would remove all current supreme court judges except those hand-picked by the justice minister from the Eurosceptic, socially conservative ruling party. On Monday the key proposals were shot down by the president, previously a party loyalist.

“I'm absolutely a supporter of this reform, but a wise reform,” Mr Duda said in a brief live statement.

He said he had been most influenced by a leading anti-communist dissident who had warned against placing power in the hands of politically-appointed prosecutors.

“As president, I feel deep inside my soul that this reform in this form will not increase the sense of security and justice.”

Although the president had previously spoken of his reservations, the veto of two of three bills under consideration still came as a surprise.

Former foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorksi told the BBC before the veto on Monday that the president had been showing some signs of independence but “I would be surprised if it goes this far”.

Opponents said that Mr Duda was hand-picked for the role by the leader of the ruling Law and Justice party because of his “pliability”.

But his first rebellion since his 2015 election came over an issue that critics said would lead the country into authoritarian rule. He signalled he would sign off on a third bill giving the justice minister powers to dismiss heads of lower courts.

A senior EU diplomat said it was not clear if the amendments requested by the president were anything more than cosmetic.

Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski declined to answer reporters' questions as he headed into a party leadership meeting to discuss the unexpected veto.

The vetoes can be overridden but require a two-thirds parliamentary majority the ruling coalition is unlikely to muster, particularly in the face of widespread public protests.

Thousands of demonstrators carrying candles had marched through Warsaw at the weekend chanting: “We want veto."

Historian and commentator Anne Applebaum said on Twitter: “Demonstrations worked! Poland’s hitherto supine president just announced he will veto the unjust ‘judicial reform’. Congratulations Poles.”

Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz, a leading member of the opposition party Modern, called it a step in the right direction and an “act of courage”. She said the decision also showed the power of civic protests.

The reversal comes barely three weeks after the country was praised by US president Donald Trump during a visit to the country before a G20 summit in Germany.

The visit was seen as an endorsement of Poland’s populist leadership, which has repeatedly clashed with EU institutions over its reforms and refused to accept immigrants.